The Afterbirth, 1931

By Nikky Finney b. 1957 Nikky Finney
We were a Colored Clan of Kinfolk
Who threw soil      not salt
Over our shoulders
Who tendered close the bible
Who grew and passed around the almanac at night
So we would know   
What to plant at first light

Black soil and sweet brown sorghum
From the every morning biscuits
Mama Susan fixed
Dripping and mixing
Up under our fingernails
A secret salve
Just like any other
Living simple
And keeping to our proud selves
Quite aware of night riders
Quite aware of men with   
Politicious smiles
Cologned with kerosene and match

Aware of just whose feet
Walked across our tin roofs at night

We were such light sleepers
Such long distance believers

We were a family pregnant
Whose water had broke
And for once there was ham money
’Bacca money
So we thought to do better by ourselves
To begin our next row
We would go and get him
Because he was medically degreed in baby bringing
Because he was young and white and handsome
And because of that
Had been neighbor to more knowledge
Than us way back behind   
The country’s proud but inferior lines

And because he came with his papers in his pocket
So convincing      so soon
After his ivy graduation
Asking us hadn’t we heard
Telling us times had changed
And the midwife wasn’t safe anymore
Even though we had all been caught
By tried and true Black Grannies
Who lay ax blade sharp side up
And water pan underneath the bed
To cut the pain
To cool the fever

We were a Pregnant Clan of Kinfolk
Caught with water running down our legs
Old family say they remember   
Going to fetch him
Telling him that it was time
That he should come now
But he didn’t show right away
Not right away
But came when he wanted
The next day
After his breakfast

But what more
Could we colored country folk ever want
Even if we had to watch the road all night for him
Even if we had to not let her push too hard
When he finally came
He had his papers on him
Something with one of those pretty shiny seals
Old family say they can remember
Somethin’ just wasn’t right
But we opened the screen for him anyway
Trusting
And tendering close what the Good Book
Had told us all our lives to do

Then we made him a path
Where he put his hand up      then inside
My grandmother’s womb
Her precious private pleasing place
Somewhere he probably didn’t want to touch

Then he pulled my daddy through
Somebody he probably didn’t care to reach for
And from the first he pulled him wrong
And wrong
Shattered his collarbone
And snapped his soft baby foot in half
And smashed the cartilage in his infant hand

Wringing
Their own sun baked arms
Old timey family
Remember him well
Say they knew somethin’ wasn’t right
As he came through the door
A day later
His breakfast digested now
Somethin’ just wasn’t right
How he had two waters on him
One sweet      one sour-mash
One trying to throw snow quilt over the other
As he un-carefully
As drunkenly
He with his papers on him still
Stood there turning a brown baby into blue
Un-magically
And right before our eyes

Hope and Pray
Hope and Pray

Then he packed his bag and      left
With all of his official training
And gathered up gold stars      left
The Virginia land of Cumberland County

He left and forgot
He left and didn’t remember
The afterbirth inside
Carlene Godwin Finney

To clabber
Gangrene
Close down
Her place
Her precious private pleasing place
To fill the house to the rafters
Up past the dimpled tin roof
With a rotting smell
That stayed for nine days
That mortgaged a room
In our memories
And did not die with her

We were a Brown and Pregnant Family
And he would’ve remembered his schoolin’
And left his bottle
Recollected his manners
And brought his right mind
Had another klan called him to their bedside
He would’ve come right away
He would’ve never had liquor on his breath
If the color of my daddy’s broken limbs
Had matched the color of his own but

We were a Colored Clan of Kinfolk
We should’ve met him at the door
Should’ve told him lean first into the rusty screen
Made him open up his mouth and blow
Breathe out right there
Into all of our brown and lined up faces
In wait of his worthiness

Then just for good measure
Should’ve made him blow once again
Into Papa Josh’s truth telling jar
Just to be sure
Should’ve let Mama Sally
Then Aunt Nanny
Then lastly Aunt Mary   
Give him the final once over
And hold his sterile hands
Down to the firelight to check
Just like she checked our own every night
Before supper
Before we were allowed to sit
At her very particular table

We could’ve let Aunt Ira clutch him by his chin
Enter and leave through her eyes
Just like how she came and went through us   
Everyday at her leisure

She would’ve took care to notice
As she traveled all up and through him
Any shaking      any sweating
And caught his incapable belligerent incompetence
In time

Oh Jesus

We should’ve let Grandpop Robert
Have him from the first
Should’ve let him pick him up
By the back of his pants
And swirl him around
Just like he picked us up
And swirled us around
Anytime he caught us lying or lazy
Or being less than what we were

We should’ve let Grandpop
Loose on him from the start
And he would’ve held him up
High eye to the sun
And looked straight through him
Just like he held us up
And then we would have known first
Like he always knew first
And brought to us
The very map of his heart
Then we would have known
Just what his intentions were
With our Carlene

Before we knew his name
Or cared about his many degrees
Before he dared reach up      then inside
Our family’s brown globe
While we stood there
Some of us throwing good black soil
With one hand
Some of us tending close
The Good Book with the other
Believing and trusting
We were doing better
By this one
Standing there

Waterfalls running
Screaming whitewater rapids

Down our pants legs
Down our pantaloons
To our many selves

All the while   
Praying hard
That maybe we were wrong
(please make us wrong)
One hundred proof
Smelled the same as
Isopropyl

Nikky Finney, "The Afterbirth, 1931" from Rice. Copyright © 1995 by Nikky Finney. Used by permission of the author.

Source: Rice (Sister Vision Press, 1995)

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Poet Nikky Finney b. 1957

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Subjects Relationships, Home Life, Family & Ancestors, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity